what are your thoughts on the 3 pre heisei era kamen rider films: Shin, J, ZO and would you recommend watching them?
Ooooo good question! After the hiatus Kamen Rider took in the early 1980s, the failure to launch a new series in 1984 with the Kamen Rider ZX special and the success of the two Kamen Rider Black series, the franchise when back into hibernation for a bit. The only new entries were the three film you are asking about, which started in 1991 with a straight to video entry while the next two were parts of the Toei Hero Fair festival showings paired with film versions of their TV tokusatsu entries of the time.
Let’s start with Shin Kamen Rider: Prologue.
This was the straight to video, V-Cinema release intended to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Kamen Rider franchise with an entirely new, re-imagined version of the character for a more adult audience. I am not going to mince words and just say this one is the weakest of the three films. A lot of the blame for this is reflected in the subtitle of the film itself: Prologue. This was meant to be the origin story for a hero design to launch a series. The fact that there was never a series speaks to the relative failure of this film. That’s kind of sad because what we are shown in this film is intriguing, even if it takes a while to get there.
This version of Kamen Rider is the first to deal with genetic manipulation as the origin of the hero rather than cybernetics or other technological means of transforming. Our hero, Shin, becomes infused with the genetics of a grasshopper. Why a grasshopper? Well, according to the scientist responsible, after the apocalypse….
Thanks to being genetically manipulated and not having a technological transformation, Shin’s is kind of painful looking and entirely biological. It also leaves him looking the most like what we would expect to be a monster in any other Rider entry.
The tone of the film is very dark and going for mature and violent while holding back the big fight scene until the end and not really giving us any closure as it was intended to launch a new series that never happened. What we did get though was some very out of place and random nudity:
plus a heaping helping of gore:
It didn’t really appeal to the intended market and the more mature content kept it out of the reach of kids who might have enjoyed it so it fell into a kind of limbo. It’s kind of a shame because these days, it might have worked on a streaming platform as is evidenced by the success of the similarly violent Amazon Prime Japan series Kamen Rider Amazons.
Skip ahead two years and a more family friendly but still VERY DARK Kamen Rider would grace the screens of Japanese theaters along with the Gosei Sentai Dairanger movie and the Tokusou Robo Janperson film as the 1993 Toei Hero Fair. This one was directed and art designed by my favorite modern tokusatsu creator, Keita Amemiya and also the very first Kamen Rider media I ever got the chance to watch, Kamen Rider ZO.
Oh man, I could gush about this movie for ages and it always makes my list of favorite Kamen Rider properties as well as recommendations for starting points for people looking to get into the franchise. It has just about everything I love about this particular tokusatsu hero; great monster designs, fantastic fight scenes, a compelling narrative and a likable hero.
Just look at these monsters:
The design work on this movie alone sold it for me and I still go back and watch it every now and then when I want a reminder of how good both mid-90s tokusatsu and Keita Amemiya’s early work was. I could go on more but I’ll make this one simple, WATCH IT!
Finally, in 1994, Toei’s Hero Festival brought the world Kamen Rider J.
This was another product of Keita Amemiya and along with the previous film and the next year’s Mechanical Violator Hakaider formed his Toei Tokusatsu Trilogy. It brings the same awesome design sensibilities and action as the previous entry but also brought one other thing, Yūta Mochizuki who has previously played Geki in Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger as the new Kamen Rider, Koji.
Our villains this time are agents of the Space Mecha Beast Fog Mother who travels from planet to planet to devour all life on that world to spawn her children. They have a pretty sweet base of operations, a giant moving castle with an interior that looks like it was decorated by H.R. Giger and Clive Barker.
It turns out this is actually Fog Mother’s second visit to Earth. It came once before, 65 million years ago. You can guess what happened then:
So, now they are back to do the same thing to humanity! Fortunately, Koji gets found by representatives of the spirits of the Earth and turned into Kamen Rider J, who, along with his talking grasshopper companion are the only hope to stop Fog Mother and save all life on the planet!
Once again, the monster designs are pretty good. Maybe not as memorable as the ones from Kamen Rider ZO, but still pretty great.
Eventually, J works his way through the monsters around him and has to battle Fog Mother itself, which turns out to be the giant castle! That’s when J does what he is best known for, growing. J is the only Kamen Rider capable of stealing Ultraman’s shtick and becoming a giant!
Ok, here’s the thing about Kamen Rider J. It has a pretty unsubtle environmental message. The hero is an environmental journalist, the movie makes a point to note all the climate changes causes natural disasters around the world and the young girl in the film is seen morning the deaths of birds and squirrels. Of course, all of this is pretty much blamed on Fog Mother but it still has all the subtlety of an episode of Captain Planet. It don’t mind a movie with a message but this one comes across as ham-fisted.
It also lacks much in the way of character development and just moves from one setpiece fight to another. This is, of course, partially the blame of the short format these festival movies have to have but ZO seemed to use those limitations to tell a more compelling story.
One thing I just heard the other day regards the similarities in the looks between Kamen Rider ZO and Kamen Rider J themselves. Just take a look and you can tell they were based on the same design.
Apparently, they were intended as sort of modern (for the mid-1990s) versions of Kamen Rider Ichigo and Kamen Rider Niigo, based on very similar designs and meant to meet and work together. This only came about in the VERY short film Kamen Rider World which showed at special events and theme parks.
So, are they worth watching? Shin Kamen Rider is a neat glimpse into an alternate take on the character, Kamen Rider ZO is essential viewing and Kamen Rider J is a fun romp with some great design work. So, yes, they are all worth your time.
Thanks for the question!